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The duo behind CrossFit’s favorite athletic brand has a unique design approach—no BS—and it’s paying off

March 15, 2022, 4:21 PM UTC

When you order a new pair of NOBULL trainers and open the box, the company’s packaging plainly reads, “This won’t make you fitter.” While it might not be the softest start, it speaks to the heart of the design philosophy behind the six-year-old athletic brand. “The NOBULL mentality is a lens we view everything through,” says NOBULL co-founder and Reebok alum Marcus Wilson, noting the company’s hardcore commitment to what they call aggressive simplicity. “There exists this idea that if consumers wear this technology, they’ll run faster and jump higher. We feel that’s bullshit. It’s about the work you put in; people training every day to get better.”

The Boston-based company, which makes athletic training shoes and apparel, is named to abbreviate the phrase, “no bullshit.” The brand’s entire approach, says Wilson, is creating something that offers all of what you actually, authentically need to train hard, and none of what you don’t. The NOBULL shoe looks incredibly clean and minimal; it has no obvious bells and whistles and comes in just a few colors and styles. The design-led brand was born of a passion for sport and a desire to approach athletic footwear with fresh eyes.

Wilson had held several leadership roles in product and strategy at brands like Bose and Reebok, where he met co-founder Michael Schaeffer, a Pratt-trained designer and mechanical engineer. “I met Marcus in 2005,” says Schaeffer. “I had interviewed with him and we were going to be partners to revitalize certain things there. I hadn’t met a lot of people on the business side that had a lot of respect for design. This was the first time I felt like I had a partner.” The two had immediate chemistry, and when Wilson eventually left Reebok several years later, they met regularly to spitball start-up ideas over breakfast.

NOBULL co-founders Marcus Wilson (left) and Michael Schaeffer (right) in their store in Boston.
NOBULL co-founders Marcus Wilson (left) and Michael Schaeffer (right) in their store in Boston. The Reebok alumni founded NOBULL in 2015, with a no frills approach to performance shoe design—what they call aggressive simplicity.
Courtesy of NOBULL

While NOBULL started in 2015 catering to the CrossFit community (a sport both Wilson and Schaeffer are involved in), it’s now known for performance and training across many disciplines: running, swimming, football, and more. In fact, this month the brand was named the official training and apparel sponsor of the PGA Tour. Olympic swimmer Caeleb Dressel has signed with the brand, as have NFL football players Mac Jones and Will Grier, and CrossFit champs Justin Medeiros and Tia-Clair Toomey. The company has also opened its own innovation lab in Stowe, VT, to devote time and resources to product development, idea generation, and experimentation. NOBULL is moving at record speed with very little sign of slowdown: The founders report that sales are growing 80% year over year.

Schaeffer is quick to root back to the brand’s devotion to simplicity when addressing this incredible momentum. “We don’t have to create a big manifesto,” he says when talking about his design team. “The brand name is already the filter. If it’s fake or has no purpose on the product, we can take it off.” Of course, that doesn’t mean the design itself is literally simple. Taking a deeper dive into the NOBULL process, here are a few key takeaways on how to leverage technology without burdening the end user with the superfluous.

A pair of NOBULL's signature trainers in black and white.
A pair of NOBULL’s signature SuperFabric trainers in black and white.
Courtesy of NOBULL

Reduce

The NOBULL shoe is purposely minimalist in appearance. Constructed of just two pieces, Schaeffer says, the shoe still manages to meet incredibly complex demands of any athlete’s movement. “There can be no gimmicks and it needs to be as clean as possible,” he says. “It’s very hard to design into that. It’s much easier to put a lot of crap on the shoe. I’m Austrian-born and the influence of German design is strong for me. I also lived and worked as a designer in Japan. When I buy a motorcycle, I remove all of the plastic so I can see the parts and I leave it that way.” 

The NOBULL team, Schaeffer estimates, went through 10 iterations of its trainer before settling on a material and design. “We design inside out,” he notes. “We don’t have seasonal themes. We don’t do trend forecasting.” The process, says Wilson, is about a discipline of restraint, always coming back to functionality and the end goal of a product’s use. “It’s difficult to strip things away,” says Wilson. “That’s also why we don’t change the product very often. Other brands introduce something new every season. We say that’s not necessary and we work on small tweaks.” Another way the company uses this philosophy is through its pricing. Wilson and Schaeffer are careful not to design shoes to fit specific price points that span the market. Instead, NOBULL keeps its price point relatively narrow, offering fewer options but in a consistent range. Men’s and women’s trainers, for instance, both cover price points from roughly $120 to $160, while weight lifting shoes for both men and women all cost $299. 

“NOBULL’s design philosophy is all about simplicity and honesty,” says Mike Kirtley, VP of footwear design at the company. “It’s about quality materials that are fit for purpose, adding only what is necessary to deliver the highest level of performance, integrating technology in a seamless way. This approach means there are fewer components and fewer seams to fail, leading to highly durable, comfortable, timeless, products that are built to withstand the toughest workouts and more.”

Get specific

The flip side of that reduction is the complexity of what remains, says Schaeffer. The brand has doubled down on technology to help it maintain simplicity. In an athletic shoe, durability, comfort, breathability, water resistance, and flexibility are important considerations that can only be addressed with the right technology. “We found SuperFabric,” he says. “You can literally cut the shoe pattern out of it and it works for rope climbs and running. It’s stable enough to weight lift. You can be indoors or outdoors. We thought, ‘This is perfect.’” 

Similarly, Schaeffer’s design team is working to reframe the way it presents athletic apparel to its customers. “We decided we aren’t going to create collections for every one of these sports,” he says, noting that range of motion, climate, and movement patterns are more important considerations on the whole in terms of the brand’s design approach. “It’s a different way of thinking about a product road map versus what the industry is doing. It’s about giving people different usage and climate scenarios to buy into.”

Ask open-ended questions

In an effort to strip back the brand even more, the company is currently considering how many variations NOBULL needs to offer its customers in terms of categories. The preconceived notion, says Schaeffer, is that every sport demands its own shoe. The design team at NOBULL aims to address that from a different angle. For instance, says Schaeffer, maybe there’s a way to frame the question in terms of surfaces and sport. Golf and CrossFit might have similar movement patterns and take place on the same turf surface. Basketball and volleyball may offer some parallels, too. “If I have body movements in all different directions, why do I need to start from scratch from a product engineering standpoint? We are just starting with this conversation; breaking the industry standard of saying here’s a category and here’s the movement and surface. We are trying to reduce the amount of overlap and come up with simple solutions for consumers that do different sports.” 

A big part of the brand’s discovery process, says Wilson, comes in the form of their  new innovation lab. While most of NOBULL’s 180 employees will work out of a newly leased 92,000-square-foot space the company is designing in Boston, a group of 10 designers and engineers have set up camp in rural Vermont. There, they’ll have the opportunity to dream up new ideas, test out pie-in-the-sky products and test it all against the outdoor adventure and sport Vermont’s landscape has to offer. “Ideas and creativity come from people talking,” says Schaeffer, “not from two people sitting behind a locked door and trying to think really, really hard. That’s not how it happens. Our idea is to create this in a very transparent fashion; everyone can be involved.”


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Nicole Gull McElroy

nicolegull@gmail.com

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